Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali tackles Stephen King's 'In the Tall Grass'

TORONTO — Canadian horror/thriller filmmaker Vincenzo Natali is on the phone talking about his new Netflix project "In the Tall Grass" when his eight-year-old son interrupts.

"He's playing with this haunted house app," Natali explains with a laugh from his Toronto home.

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"The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree."

The writer-director behind such creepy Canadian films as the sci-fi horrors "Splice" and "Cube" is back with another spine-tingling screen story, this one based on a short story by father-son Stephen King and Joe Hill.

Shot in a farmer's field near Stratford, Ont., the film stars Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted as siblings who make a pit stop at a Kansas field of tall grass while on a road trip to San Diego.

They've pulled over because she's nauseated from her pregnancy, but that turns out to be the least of their problems when they hear a young boy call for help from the field and they go into the jungle-like foliage to investigate.

As they try to navigate their way through the lush landscape, they find space and time shifting as they encounter frightening scenarios and characters. The cast also includes Patrick Wilson, Will Buie Jr., Rachel Wilson and Harrison Gilbertson.

Natali came into the project when someone gave him the short story to read and he pitched the authors on a film adaptation. He did so through King's Dollar Baby program, which grants filmmakers the rights to adapt the horror master's writing for just US$1 and is designed "to prevent his work from getting stuck in development hell," Natali said.

"Frequently there are things that I would love to do but no one will let me touch with a 10-foot pole," Natali said, "and this was one of those rare occasions where I could in fact touch."

Natali said King and Hill were supportive and faithful to him and his team — "I felt really like they had my back and continue to" — even as they faced a delay waiting for the field of grass to reach its optimal height in summer 2018.

Then came the Instagram generation, flocking to the set to take selfies.

"We became a little bit of a sensation in Stratford and every day at wrap there was a lineup of people photographing themselves in front of the church that we built. It's strange times we live in," Natali said.

"It's probably a good thing, it promoted the film. But I did notice that one of the locals posted their photos that they took last year and then gave the movie a bad review, to which I took great umbrage," he added with a laugh.

Natali wanted to remain "very faithful to the source material" while also expanding upon it to make it a feature-length project. Hill helped out, writing a passage where Wilson's character gives a speech.

The filmmaker is known for delivering shocking moments that get audiences talking, like that full-body slice and dice scene in "Cube." "In the Tall Grass" is no exception, with a scene that involves De Oliveira and was taken directly from a part in the short story that Natali said was "one of the most disturbing things" he's ever read.

"That was one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie, frankly, because I thought it was touching on a nerve and doing something I hadn't really seen before," he said.

"So that was always a stipulation for me: I was never going to take that scene out of the movie. That was a deal-breaker."

Natali films also often evoke a sense of claustrophobia with characters who are trapped in settings, like the field in "In the Tall Grass." It's a theme Natali unconsciously gravitates toward, he said, noting such limited confines are also partly due to his films' low budgets.

"Having said that, those kinds of restrictions can be really inspiring and I've always leaned on that," he said. "I've always found that having boundaries actually forces me to be more creative than I might be if I had unlimited resources."

Overall, "In the Tall Grass" explores religion, redemption and what it means to be human.

Such heavy themes are permeating the horror genre these days, which Natali chalks up to the political climate.

"There's no other genre that's been more in tune with the times than horror," Natali said.

"We're living in a very scary moment and a very complicated, uncertain moment and I truly believe that that has done a lot for the genre and is inspiring people to do really interesting kinds of horror films and not lean on the obvious tropes.

"So we can all tip our hat to Donald Trump for making the world a more miserable place and therefore (fodder) for a new breed of horror film."

This report by The Canadian Press was originally published on Oct. 18, 2019.

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